Re fresh developments in Australian 'unity' debates

Peter Boyle peterb at
Wed Nov 6 18:00:42 MST 2002

Here are two more contributions to the debate about left
unity in the Australian Socialist Alliance.

In response to the ISO's ultimatum -- gloatingly presented
to this list by Jeff Sparrow (whose Socialist Alternative
has unfortunately opposed left regroupment through the
Socialist Alliance) -- the DSP has asked an urgent meeting
with the ISO. This meeting should take place this weekend.

Peter Boyle
peterb at


Taking the steps towards a united Socialist Party - by Simon

The current unity discussions initiated by the DSP proposal
to dissolve into the Socialist Alliance are of vital
importance to the future of the socialist movement in this
country. It has been an aspiration of mine for well over ten
years to see the various revolutionary socialist groups
unite and form one party. I was a member of Militant (now
the Socialist Party) for many years. When it became obvious
to me that the key leaders of that organization had no
desire, in the short to medium term, to build socialist
unity I left. The other key factor was that it became clear
that the political shots were being called overseas through
its international organization. I am sick and tired of being
a part of sect building.

I admire what the Scottish Militant did in breaking with the
rotten sectarianism of the British Militant under Peter
Taffe and going ahead and building the Scottish Socialist
Party. Rather than subordinate themselves to the phoney
internationalism of the Committee for a Workers
International they took the necessary steps and
opportunities to significantly advance the cause of
socialism in Scotland. I sincerely hope that revolutionary
socialist movement in Australia can grab this historic
opportunity to unite. We have the chance to qualitatively
strengthen the socialist movement in Australia and lay the
foundation for a mass based revolutionary socialist party.
Lets recognise this opportunity for what it is and not
squander it.

I agree with much of the DSP proposal but I am convinced
that the method is flawed. I would be wonderful if the
affiliates of the Socialist Alliance were all prepared to
follow the DSP's lead and dissolve into the Alliance but
unfortunately this is not the case. The first of the unity
discussions was an excellent beginning and long overdue.
These discussions highlighted for me the current differences
and the necessity of a establishing a broad political
consensus before any organisational moves are carried out.

While the problems with Socialist Alliance are pressing for
the DSP to unilaterally dissolve into the Socialist Alliance
in January would be an organisational move carried out in
the face of widespread objections from the ISO and many
others. I would like to see the DSP adopt a more flexible
approach. At their January conference I would propose that
they empower their national executive to carry out the
transition from a separate organization to an internal
tendency within Socialist Alliance only when the political
conditions are ripe for such a step. If the DSP was able to
win a significant majority for this step at Socialist
Alliances May conference for instance then they would have
won the necessary political mandate for their transition.

Some ISO members have argued that even if all the affiliates
agreed to unite they would only number around 700 and still
be faced with essentially the same tasks that the separate
organizations face now. Underlying this train of thought is
the idea that a united party of the existing revolutionary
socialist organizations would simply be a quantitative step,
a simple addition of numbers, a step that wouldn't address
the fundamental problem of how to build a mass based
socialist party. I disagree completely. I believe that if
such a step was taken it would be a qualitative step forward
for the socialist movement in this county. While in numbers
it would mean roughly a doubling in size of the DSP, its
ability to then carry out the task of winning the best
layers of the working class and social movement activists to
it's rank would be quadrupled and beyond. Also we would be
able to move beyond being primarily propaganda organizations
to being a true party of action.

While the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in it early
days had the prestige of the Soviet Union to help build its
ranks it also had the enormous advantage of having a virtual
monopoly on socialism. If you wanted to fight for socialism
there was one clear choice before the CPA split and that was
the CPA. We have won the ear of many of the best militant
trade unionists in the country but their criticism of the
socialist left is summed up by one comment a close trade
union comrade made to me, "you socialists talk about uniting
the working class but you cannot even unite yourselves."

A key part of the political debate that is going on now is
the differences over what the affiliates and independent
members of Socialist Alliance actually perceive Socialist
Alliance to be. While we can all agree on what Socialist
Alliance is at present the problems begin when we talk about
its future. For me it is clear that the future of Socialist
Alliance lies in the formation of a multi tendency
revolutionary Socialist Party. I ask people to imagine the
impact of the May Socialist Alliance conference if it became
a unity conference. It would be the most important step
forward for the Socialist movement in Australia since the
foundation of the Communist Party. The effect on the left
would be magnetic it would signal the end to the decades of
isolation and defeats.

I think that ISO analysis of how and who the Socialist
Alliance is aiming to draw into its ranks is fundamentally
incorrect. All this talk about breaks with the Labour Party
I was far more applicable to  the Labour Party during the
Hawke Keating years. The majority of left activists in the
ALP have left long ago, Chris Cain is a typical example, he
left in the late eighties after the ALP smashed the Pilots
Union. The current ALP left and the class composition of ALP
reflects the fact that the ALP is as Lenin originally
characterised it, a bourgeois liberal party. Whether it has
always been this way or has gone through a transformation is
pretty much a moot point. The Cunningham bi election didn't
represent a break from labour but a specific internal
faction fight over branch stacking. The current reality is
that there are no indications of any break with the ALP by
the trade unions except for the Victorian AMWU.

I see Socialist Alliance as the vehicle to carry out a major
socialist regroupment. In Australia at present there exist
thousands of people outside any of the affiliates who
already identify themselves as revolutionary socialists. The
people include those who have been former members of the
various anti Stalinist socialist organizations, to former
CPA members to the thousands of former ALP members and
finally the independent socialist activists. The political
basis for a small mass socialist party of several thousand
already exists. The currently divided and splintered
socialist movement is an objective block to this party.

The time is ripe for regroupment on all fronts. After
decades of defeats, the collapse of Soviet Union and the
stalling of third world social revolutions the tide has
turned. We have seen the emergence of the international anti
capitalist movement drawing thousands of young people into
battle. On the union front we now have militant leaderships,
predominately located in Victoria, ranging from the CFMEU &
AMWU, to the TCFUA. A whole new layer of young and old
militant trade unionists, most of whom are outside any
political party, have been successfully battling to overcome
the devastating affects of the Accord years. Some have
turned to the Greens but the vast majority are waiting for
genuine working class alternative to labour. We can and must
seize this opportunity to fill this vacuum that has been
waiting to be filled for far to long.

While I agree that we need to live with the current agreed
program the revolutionary project must be seen as developing
through Socialist Alliance not outside it. To continue as we
are with an organization that has problems just keeping up
with its basic book keeping tasks and whose future still
looks uncertain is recipe for a slow death. While I believe
that it will take a much longer period of united work and
political discussion to reach the ultimate goal of political
and organisational unity. The current leadership of the
socialist movement needs to reach the conclusion that
organisational unity is possible and absolutely necessary.

Trotsky categorically stated that the current crisis of the
working class was a crisis of leadership. We are in a
position now to partially overcome this crisis. While we
unfortunately are not at the stage of carrying through full
organisational unity, lets use these unity discussions to
take concrete steps towards this burning necessity. Rather
than separate stalls lets agree to have Socialist Alliance
stalls. Rather than separate papers lets establish one paper
with a broad editorial team. Rather than recruiting to our
separate organizations lets recruit to Socialist Alliance
first. Lets discuss how and when to take these and other
steps towards establishing a united face. In practice this
will mean a scaling down of affiliates efforts to build
themselves at the expense of each other so as to free the
time and resources necessary to make Socialist Alliance
work. Let's lock ourselves into the Socialist Alliance
project and invigorate it with our enthusiasm, confidence
and activism. Let's set ourselves the goal of a united
Socialist Party. Let's use this goal to guide and inspire us
through a period of intense united work coupled with
political discussion and together we will give birth to a
mighty Socialist Party capable in the future of toppling
capitalism once and for all.

Left unity means uniting the socialist left with the working

Janet Burstall (Workers Liberty)

Socialist Alliance (SA) members are discussing left unity
with renewed fervour in response to the Democratic Socialist
Party's (DSP) recently announced intention to vote at its
January 2003 conference to publish Green Left Weekly and to
meet as the Democratic Socialist Tendency within the
Socialist Alliance, and not as the DSP. Janet Burstall
comments on the significance of the discussion and

The central issue of any unity in politics is what is the
agreement, what is the common understanding and basis for

The DSP on the one hand is hoping to lead by organisational
example, to create a bigger weight of numbers available to
be organised into and be organisers of the SA. The politics
as far as the DSP is concerned, have evolved since the
founding conference in August 2003 as a consensus from the
deliberations of the various committee level bodies of the
SA, without a democratic process involving the membership.
Dick Nicholls, the DSP's representative as one of three
national co-convenors of the SA flagged the DSP's intention
to propose a vision statement about socialism soon. But the
DSP has so far put the organisational cart before the
political horse.

On the other hand, the International Socialist Organisation
(ISO) has reacted as if the DSP's actions alone are designed
to and indeed could turn the SA into the creature of the
DSP, and is acting like a shying horse that is frightened of
the cart altogether. The ISO is arguing to keep it simple -
keep the Socialist Alliance as an "electoral united front",
as one of many arenas for left unity, others being the
anti-capitalist movement, anti-war movement, refugee
solidarity. The ISO thinks that the SA cannot be the forum
for regroupment of the revolutionary left, without driving
away all the independents who are turning from Labor and
looking for a broad alternative.

It is a new and welcome move to find the ISO addressing
electoral politics with something more positive than "kick
the Liberals out". But the ISO's history does not equip it
well to integrate struggle on the three fronts - economic,
political and ideological. So the ISO's participation in the
SA project is fuelling confusion and divisions within the
ISO and loss of members to its co-thinking Socialist
Alternative, which has judged a different mood amongst the
masses, and therefore is not affiliated to the SA.

So the DSP is pressing the organisational accelerator, and
the ISO says that the way to unity is through joint work on
a variety of fronts, the SA being only one of them, and an
electoral one.

History of division

Workers' Liberty is for accelerating progress towards left
unity. Our position on this is based on our understanding of
the origins and significance of divisions on the
revolutionary left.

We come from the 20th century history of defeats for the
organised working class in Russia, Europe and China, and of
the decline of the left, of disappointed expectations in
both social democracy and Stalinism. Correspondingly, the
collapse of Stalinist power has cleared the decks and
created the opportunity that the Socialist Alliance is

Each strand of post WWII Trotskyism has developed its own
world view in response to the contradiction of Stalinism.
The conundrum that the post WWII Trotskyists have grappled
with was how could Stalin, who imprisoned and murdered the
revolutionary workers of Russia, be understood to preside
over and create workers states? Answers to this were
developed by the Trotskyists pretty much in isolation not
only from the class struggle but also in a series of splits.

Socialists are coming from decades during which we have each
developed our own set of explanations for the defeats of the
20th century, as the revolutionary Marxists were variously
murdered, isolated, or retreated. We each developed our own
jargon, our own set of references. As far as Workers'
Liberty is concerned, there has been demonstrable repeated
avoidance of reassessment of yesterday's politics against
today's developments. The various revolutionary left groups
have not been forced to test assertions against the
experience of a working class movement, because we have
generally had a low level of influence in the labour

Socialists face twin challenges as a result of this history.
The organised working class movement is bureaucratised and
dominated by and large by a conservative leadership.
Socialists and Marxists have very little influence within
the working class, on the course of working class
self-organisation and struggle.

The SA framework

This means that WL does not see the counterposition that the
ISO does, between the Socialist Alliance being either a
broad electoral front, or a revolutionary regroupment
project. Rather the SA is a chance for the left to come up
with an immediate platform and program for working class
politics, to develop in dialogue with working class
activists an understanding of the needs of specific working
class struggles. This is the political basis for the SA to
mobilise the broadest range of socialists. As a result and
in that context, we will be forced to resolve some of the
issues which have divided the revolutionary left.

The fact is that there are important political differences
within the Alliance. But what is a remarkable achievement is
that groups which for years had barely had discussion, whose
members rarely read one another's press, whose meetings were
sometimes chaired in a way hostile to any challenge to the
line of their organisation, are now working together within
a democratic structure, discussing political issues in a
comradely fashion. If any unity worth the name must be based
on agreement, and differences are resolved by dialogue
accompanied by common practice and experiences - then the SA
has already laid a precious foundation.

Workers Liberty proposes that there are certain steps to be
taken towards developing more meaningful left unity. If we
don't move towards greater left unity, then we are doing a
disservice to the working class movement, which will remain
trapped in some form of reformist politics, if there is no
clear and predominant socialist alternative offered and
fought for.

The way forward

The most important immediate goals that we could set to
resolving differences would be:

1. A more encompassing platform, a document that is on the
way to becoming a program, at least of current action and
policies. It should be fit to present to the Australian
working class as a whole and represent the political
aspirations of the most advanced workers, and give them
something clear to fight for in their unions and
communities. It must connect class struggle and solidarity,
and a critique of capital to all the issues it takes up, to
move beyond the limits of protest politics. It must be more
than dot points, it must answer questions, such as "where is
the money coming from?", "why not vote Green, they have more
chance of getting elected, and we know what we're getting
with them?", "you just care about refugees, Iraquis and drug
users, but what about Australians?".

The ISO's preference for "an electoral united front" is
unfathomable as a socialist perspective. It was based on an
expectation that by simply raising a socialist banner in an
election and speaking the language of `true reformism', we
could rally an enormous base of support. Experience has
proved this expectation to be ill-founded. A perceived "mass
mood" is not a reliable basis for planning socialist
politics. So where can the "electoral united front" take us?
What can it achieve? Only more of the same, no breakthrough.
Those sights are too low for what is needed.

But the "unity in practice" which the DSP refers to is not
the kind of political agreement we need. Various delegated
committees, from National Convenors to state groups, have
managed to issue various statements on current political
issues, and lots of common protest actions have been built,
especially around the war and refugees.

But still the DSP and the ISO are working in separate
campaigns on refugees, the war and on campus. The DSP's
justification of multiple campaigns as representing healthy
pluralism has no credibility. The political basis for
division should be being discussed with the aim of

But even a resolution of these campaigning matters will not
be sufficient. The "unity in practice" within the SA is
still too limited. The discussion on any statements has been
mainly at committee, not membership and branch levels. And
it is basically at the lowest common denominator level
needed to co-ordinate protests that reflect basic democratic
concerns and do not make consistent connections between the
issues, working class solidarity and socialism.

Our platform does not explain what is different about our
approach from the Greens. We say that they rely on
parliament and we don't. We organise more demonstrations.
But why bother to vote in a parliamentary election for
demonstrations, when you can show support for demonstrations
 demonstrating. We should be standing in elections to
advocate an alternative to reliance on parliamentary

In our priority pledges and our printed material we should
be asking people to vote for us because in this capitalist
society, all the other parties will leave the power of
capital unchallenged, except for us. We should say that we
stand with workers, we are a voice for working class
interests against capital. We should say that we are a voice
for Australian workers and workers of all countries We
should more clearly say it is in the interests of Australian
workers to make solidarity with refugees and the people of

We should say that will be a voice for working class
interests in parliament and we will speak for a government
of, for and by the working class. We should say that we are
for socialism that is made by the solidarity of working
class people, in our workplaces, in our communities, against
capital, and for a democratically self-managed publicly
owned economy.

2. A publication, at least monthly, with a broadly
representative editorial board, to give expression to the
practical application of the new platform. Without constant
application of our agreement, we cannot communicate it, test
it in practice or develop it.

3. A commitment to further discussion of differences.
Neither a regular publication nor a more developed platform
can answer in one voice all the questions or disagreements
of our history or our future. We must maintain and extend
the constitutional provisions of the SA for the right to
caucus around politics, and to guarantee public debate,
including in the pages of our publication. Only in this way
could our publication also reflect the contentious issues
awaiting resolution in the labour movement also.

The longer term need for a more encompassing platform
document can only be achieved through more discussion, and
thorough identification of the political basis of any
disagreements. From here we can plan to work through our
disagreements, taking the necessary time for reading,
debating and still maintaining our activism.

The issues which we will have to discuss if we are to have a
clear and conscious basis for unity and free expression of
disagreement within that unity include: · imperialism and
national rights, eg the rights of Palestinians and Israeli
Jews, · working class versus 'radical' politics, including
anti- imperialism, and the dangers of reactionary
anti-imperialists (eg Islamists) to the working class and
democratic rights. We see the question of class and party as
utterly interdependent. Any radical social forces must
orient towards the working class, to become part of the
socialist project, to achieve anything more than a victory
that can be accommodated by capitalism. · the nature of
Stalinism, state ownership and socialism, · the relationship
between Marxists, working class movements and reformist or
reactionary leaderships · the relationship between class
struggle and that of all the oppressed · the relationship
between industrial, political and ideological struggle, and
the revolutionary use of parliamentary politics to fight for
a workers' government.

4. Day to day activism via the Socialist Alliance. Sue
Johnson at Marxism 2002 accurately identified that a major
problem for the SA is lack of grass-roots campaigning. If we
were to conduct our day to day activism through the SA, we
would increase the capacity of the SA to contribute to such
grass roots campaign.

It will relieve pressure on SA members to duplicate their
activities, provide more energy for the SA, increase our
ability to contribute to trade union and community
campaigns, bring more comrades into closer contact, and
encourage a more thorough-going political discussion at the
membership level, raising our level of political education
and breaking down the old barriers between left groups.

A common organisation, the Socialist Alliance, with a
consciously agreed and enthusiastically adopted platform, a
lively publication which reflects all points of view, and
action together on that basis is a much better framework for
continuing to work through our differences than we have now.

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